Originally created 06/05/06

Ways to decide, collect payment receive revamp



ATLANTA - Paying child support for some parents is about to become as easy as paying a cell phone bill.

It's just one of several changes being made by the Georgia Department of Human Resources to make meeting and enforcing support orders easier.

Changes deal with everything from automatic withdrawal from bank accounts for some noncustodial parents who pay child support, to establishing paternity. All are part of an effort to modernize the Office of Child Support Services and prepare for the new system for calculating child-support payments that kicks in July 1.

Department officials also say the new changes will provide better service.

"Some of the things that are driving the changes are really the times," said Cindy Moss, who became director of the office in March.

Technology is serving as a catalyst for initiatives that Ms. Moss and others hope will help the system prepare for the new child-support formula.

MS. MOSS SAID her office, which recently underwent a name change, has been around for about 30 years. She said little has changed since it began helping parents navigate the legal and emotional maze of child support. The office also enforces support orders.

"It's time to look at what we're doing," she said.

Most of the changes use technology to solve stubborn problems, such as the automatic withdrawal option for parents who are self-employed or who get paid in cash.

"The idea is that we want to make it as easy as possible," Ms. Moss said.

Roughly two-thirds of those who pay child support through the state office work for companies that can withhold support from an employee's wages. About a third do not.

"Those are the ones that are harder to get payment from," Ms. Moss said.

The office has also worked with a private company to speed paternity tests. Tests can be set up more quickly and the results can arrive in about three days, cutting as much as a month from the process, Ms. Moss said.

"It's real important for children to have paternity established, and early," she said.

That works hand-in-hand with a recent law that allows fathers to establish legal rights for visitation a little easier, Ms. Moss said.

Officials say the legal hurdles often discouraged fathers from going through the courts to get those rights.

More changes are planned. In July, the department hopes to begin sending automatic notices of new payments and reminders of appointments or court dates to clients who request them.

Similar notices are already sent by e-mail to those who have Internet access, Ms. Moss said. The new system will also work with phones and text messages.

Ms. Moss said her office hopes the new system will comfort anxious custodial parents who often call the office's toll-free line asking whether their payments have arrived.

"What we're going to do is we're going to call them," she said.

THOUGH TECHNOLOGICAL advances have been the main catalyst for the changes, it will also help in another effort, Ms. Moss said.

A new state law requires those working on child-support cases to take both parents' income into account, a formula known as an "income shares" model. The bill's passage in March capped off a years-long fight by noncustodial parents, whose income has traditionally been the only one taken into account when figuring out child-support payments.

"From that standpoint, that was the main thing that everybody wanted," said Steve Woodward, a noncustodial parent who manages a building supply company.

Some feared an income-shares model might drag down payments by noncustodial parents, though others said it was only fair for the custodial parent's resources to be taken into account.

But critics of the changes also scored a victory when lawmakers eliminated part of the bill that would have given parents a discount on their support order if a parent had a set number of visitation days.

The issue will still be studied by a state commission.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.